Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Oral History and the Act of Listening

Photo Credit: ky_olsen
The October-November issue of Canada's History featured an interesting article titled "Guided by Voices" by Mark Abley.  This article focused on the oral history practices, using Concordia University's Life Stories of Montrealers Displaces by War, Genocide, and Other Human Rights Violations project.  (A great project that is well worth checking out if you're interested in oral history, the history of marginalized groups, or just hearing some breathtakingly emotional experiences).

Abley frames the Life Stories project within the large oral history practice and focuses on the benefits and challenges met by those undertaking any type of oral history.  The theme of the article is summed up in the words Abley uses to conclude his writing, "oral history can be a catalyst, not just for academic research, but for reflection, for dialogue, and for political action."  The nature of the Life Story's project exemplifies the importance of oral history.  Montreal Life Stories has successfully united university researchers, artists, community partner groups, volunteers, new media professionals, and other interested parties.

Additionally, the project has highlighted how valuable including the human and emotional element in history can be.  Without personal accounts, written or oral, history has the potential to become a bland list of dates and descriptions.  However, oral history is not without its difficulties, there are numerous ethical considerations that must be undertaken prior to beginning an oral history project, especially if that material is to be placed online.  Albey notes, "You're dealing with living people who trust you.  So our consent forms give layers of choices: They're not copyright agreements, they're right-of-use agreements."  The human aspect of oral history must never be forgotten - communities, traditions, and personal preferences need to respected when undertaking oral history interviews.

Abley's article helped spur a lot of positive thoughts about oral history practice, but also highlighted the need to carefully consider all facets before one undertakes such a project.

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